Could The Inferno Have Been Prevented?


Early on Saturday morning in central and northern Victoria, a hot, dry wind was already blowing hard and the mercury was climbing rapidly. With temperatures forecast to reach the mid-40s, firefighters and authorities had reason to fear for the safety of rural communities in the face of the many fires already burning across the parched state.

By lunchtime in Melbourne, even those privileged enough to enjoy air-conditioning in their homes knew that this was worse than merely a hot, dry summer day — much, much worse. As the temperature reached an all-time record across much of the state, the fire danger jumped off the scale.

The Bureau of Meteorology defines bushfire risk with a measure called the Forest Fire Danger Index which takes into account variables such as recent rainfall, air temperature and humidity, wind speed and soil dryness. A fire danger index of 25 is "very high"; 50 and over is "extreme". On Saturday night a CFA spokesman told Sky News that the figure on Saturday had reached "300".

At least one meteorologist predicted it: bushfire expert David Packham — who told the ABC on Thursday that the expected conditions on Saturday would be "pretty much equal to the situation that occurred in Canberra" — apparently wrote an email to the CFA predicting the carnage. "I doubt if the state has ever before faced such extreme conditions with fuel levels higher than ever, the prospects for Saturday are horrible," he wrote. With chilling prescience, he went on to comment that "the high risk areas because of the terrible fuel situation are the Yarra catchment, the Otways and the remainder of the Strzeleckis".

Packham believes the fuel loads that have built up in the past 30 to 40 years are unprecedented and it was this that contributed to the severity of Saturday’s infernos. "The state has never been as dangerous as it is now and this has been quite obvious for some time", he told the Australian Science Media Centre on Monday.

"There has been a total lack of willingness to instigate a proper fuel reduction management program based on the skills and understanding of indigenous people who, after all, for tens of thousands of years were the stewards of our environment", he said

The University of Sydney’s Professor Mark Adams is program leader of the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre‘s Fire in the Landscape research stream. He has spent more than 30 years living and researching the Victorian forests that burned on Saturday, including the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983. "I have never seen weather and other conditions as extreme as they were on Saturday", he writes. "The fire weather was unprecedented."

Adams makes the point that "we live in a land shaped by fire but as a society we are still learning about the full impact of major bushfires across a whole range of ecological and biological systems".

Could more have been done to warn residents about oncoming fires? Are current strategies based around the bushfire plan of "leave early or defend your home" realistic in mega-fire conditions? Could anything really have been done in the face of Saturday’s holocaust? Is this the result of climate change? The answers to many of these questions will in time be addressed by a Victorian Government Royal Commission, but in some respects already appear tragically clear.

For instance, there was a clear lack of fire preparedness among many residents living in the middle of the bush in the world’s most fire-prone continent. The noise, heat and smoke of a huge fire-front raining a hail of embers is a situation that few people are mentally prepared for, as disaster management psychologist Robert Heath points out.

The result, in many cases, was blind panic. Many victims died in cars or out in the open trying to flee. Survivors talk of having mere minutes warning before the fire hit. The Australian‘s Gary Hughes wrote that it was "more like seconds". One man told ABC Radio of a man warning neighbours in Kinglake, many of whom had no idea the fire was coming. He warned one woman by pulling over her car; apparently she was going to the shops to buy something for lunch.

The unprecedented influx of burns casualties to Melbourne’s hospitals shows up another aspect of Australia’s disaster preparedness. As a recent paper in the Medical Journal of Australia pointed out, the emergency departments of Australia’s public hospitals are in many cases already operating at their limit. They lack the surge capacity to cope with natural disasters or terrorist attacks. It’s not just doctors, nurses and ambulances; specialised equipment such as X-ray machines and beds in intensive care units provide a bottle-neck preventing disaster victims from being treated.

Climate change is another obvious contributor. Saturday’s conditions were a harbinger of a hotter, drier, more fire-prone future. A recent report for the Climate Institute by the Bushfire CRC on the effects of climate change on bushfire weather in south eastern Australia found that "by 2050, the number of extreme days generally increases by 10 to50 per cent for the low scenarios and 100 to 300 per cent for the high scenarios." In other words, by 2050 south-eastern Australia is likely to experience perhaps double to quadruple the number of days with the extreme conditions witnessed on Saturday.

It’s a sobering, indeed terrifying conclusion that backs up US research suggesting we are entering a new age of mega-fires.

A further clear lesson is what Professor David Bowman at the University of Tasmania calls the "juxtaposition of people in flammable bush". Devastated townships like Kinglake, Marysville and Stathewen are all semi-rural settlements set among bushland and grassland, often close to national parks. By building houses at the edge of the bush, Australians are placing their homes in the way of clear and frequent danger. Australia’s sprawling urban planning footprint is exacerbating the risk as more and more residents move to the edge of forests and bushlands on the periphery of our major cities.

In the aftermath of disaster, Premier John Brumby’s vow to help rebuild devastated rural communities is a natural human reaction. But in light of what we know about worsening bushfire conditions, is it wise?

Tragically, it seems Australians remain unprepared for the lethal consequences of our hostile environment and changing climate, even as the Rudd Government pretends to take it seriously. There will be more days like Saturday in Australia’s future.


Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.